Story by W. H. Bourne
Photos by Alan Markfield and Hilary Bronwyn Gayle courtesy of Gramercy Pictures
“I think every viewer gets drawn in when a wish-fulfillment aspect is a key part of a movie,” says Actor Ryan Reynolds who stars in Tarsem Singh’s Self/less. “Extending life, cheating death—if and when the right resources are poured in, this kind of science doesn’t seem that far off.”
“I was looking for a grounded thriller, something that didn’t require fantastical things,” says Director Tarsem Singh whose new movie Self/less explores the consequences of taking a life to live forever. “I didn’t mind a thematic approach, but I was looking for something that had the grounded-ness and the physicality that was along the (Director Roman) Polanski lines.”
“I love playing characters who are given specific moral choices, and the character of Damian is particularly interesting because he is morally flexible,” says Reynolds. “The audience will themselves wonder, ‘Would I do that?’ Self/less is very thought-provoking; there’s an element of narcissism to why (my new character/self) Damian commits to the ‘shedding’ process, but I also believe that he has internally struggled with some of what he’s done in life—and a second shot at it is compelling to him for that reason.”
Approached by the filmmakers to play Damian Hale in his original form, Oscar winner Ben Kingsley says, “I think that Damian has always had a magnificent ego. He is highly creative and imaginative, but this powerful man does not judge himself harshly. He may not have long to live, yet he will every day have his hands manicured, have a massage, have his beard trimmed by his barber, go to his tailor, and remain in denial (thinking), ‘I’m not dying.’ I had to display his vulnerabilities so the audience will say, ‘He’s just like my uncle,’ or, ‘That’s my Dad.’”
Kingsley adds, “We had the perfect director for this story in Tarsem Singh. His roots are in the Indian subcontinent, and one aspect of that immensely rich culture that he and I discussed is the place that reincarnation holds in people’s imaginations—and as a principle, a belief. It’s something that can be alien to us in the West. Damian needs to reincarnate himself, and he finds this genius, Albright, who will help him dodge death—even if it costs a fortune. In Tarsem’s poetry and this story’s mythology, Damian is the king who dies and then becomes a prince.”
“Damian is a man who has everything but age on his side,” offers Singh, “but he’s been a selfish person who could never sort out his personal life and will never be able to erase his past. I believe that the brain is everything and the heart is just a pump. In Self/less, Damian gets to take a second bite of the apple and is faced with the decision of being a different person.”
“If you’re going to come back, Ryan Reynolds is a pretty f—king great idea,” says Actor Matthew Goode who plays Albright, the scientist who has invented the “shedding” process. “Now, my character is on the wrong side, but there’s still a good guy in there musing on, ‘If only Einstein could have lived a little bit longer and continued his theories.’”
“Ryan was the first person we went to (attach for Self/less) because I thought if you were looking for a body to go to, you’d go to the perfect male specimen which is Ryan,” says Singh, “and you’d go yeah, ‘I’d buy that for a dollar!’”
“These are great conceits that Self/less is looking at because who doesn’t wonder about living forever? A lot of things stacked up for me to take this job, and another one of them was Tarsem Singh; I remember watching The Cell and thinking, ‘Who is this guy? I’ve never seen shots like this before,’” says Goode. “He’s brilliant to work with!”
“I never saw Albright as a villain,” explains Singh. “He plays by the rules until Damian goes rogue, and Albright has no other alternative. Emotion enters into an equation that doesn’t allow for it as calculated by Albright.”
Reynolds praises Goode for, “the challenge of delivering all the scientific details that Albright has to disclose and doing that so effortlessly that you buy into what Albright is selling—and you even understand his convictions and how he sees the world a certain way; but there is also tragedy in Albright’s own story, which feeds into how the arguments he advances become ones I tend to agree with.”
“The only time any of the exposition threw me was when I had to remember my lines with Sir Ben,” says Goode. “He was generous, but I was having a slightly out-of-body experience of, ‘You’re doing a scene with Ben Kingsley!’”
Reynolds says that it was, “a privilege to say that I was in the same film as Sir Ben. We did meet and discussed our personal thoughts on making the most out of the time we’re given, which is one of the film’s main themes.”
In the story Self/less, Sir Ben Kingsley’s character Damian takes over Ryan Reynolds’ character’s body through this process of “shedding” that Albright (Goode) has created. The way the shooting schedule was structured, Reynolds and Kingsley would never have a scene together.
“The caterpillar doesn’t know the butterfly,” offers Kingsley.
Shooting order was important to determine what character traits Reynolds would have to mimic from Sir Ben to key the audience into the fact that these two people were indeed the same person, but things didn’t quite work out as planned.
“Things were supposed to be reversed, but schedules changed things around (shooting order) so it was Ryan first and then Sir Ben. So like the accent, we just didn’t know (what Sir Ben was going to do). That’s why I came up with a few particular things like the tick with the glasses or when you come home and you throw your keys in back of you onto a chair. Those types of habits I kept and focused on instead of the accents,” explains Singh.
“Our movie’s title is interpreted differently by each of the main characters in the story,” explains Reynolds. “Each member of the audience will decide what it means to them, too.”
“When I saw the script, it was based in New York and upstate New York. They (the producers) said New Orleans is a better place to shoot, and I said I will not try to make it (New Orleans) look like any other place. It is what it is, and that’s what I love about it. So we just moved the story down to New Orleans and shot it like that,” says Singh. “It just required a couple of key plot things to change. We did New York as bookends with most everything happening in New Orleans.”
One of the scenes that’s naturally New Orleans in Self/less is an abandoned warehouse that appears to be close to (or may be) Mardi Gras Worlds’ old location on the Westbank. In the film you see pieces of Mardi Gras sculptures in an old abandoned warehouse.
“We needed to give Damian a hint (about his new body). There’s lots of abandoned warehouses in New Orleans, but very few that are abandoned and would house these sorts of things (sculptures). We wanted to use the location (Mardi Gras World), but too many people know the real one and know that it’s not something you could house an operation like this in (Albright’s lab) even though it’s a mobile lab,” explains Singh.
“I did not enjoy New Orleans, I love it! I keep thinking I’ll get a place there, but it’s got such a great rental culture that if you are going in or out, it just helps to rent the place. I shot there before, the Levi’s commercial campaign a couple of years ago. I love it …everything … and good food,” continues Singh.
One of the other iconic New Orleans scenes is a party montage that will probably become a textbook case study for all aspiring filmmakers.
“When I saw that we had a montage scene, and I thought, ‘Well, you basically had a few months to live but now everything has changed, and, so of course, you’re going to party, but you can’t tell anyone who you are. So where do you want to go? If you’re hedonistic, you’d go to New Orleans, and if you’re completely crazy, you’d go to Vegas. I picked New Orleans,” says Singh.
“I didn’t have an actual shot list, I just knew exactly what was going to happen,” continues Singh about the montage. “I shot it with a particular rhythm in mind because there was this piece of music that I really liked. It was definitely going to be in that style with tap dancing mixed with other things. That’s why I went looking for street dancers because I moved there a couple of months earlier (before the film started shooting). I used those tap dancers, and then I went with a couple of musicians and put a track on top of that and knew that I was going to literally cut to it.”
“I don’t do shot lists and I don’t do storyboards,” explains Singh. “I prefer to get the actors in there and find out where and how they want to move. They’re free to move and the cameras can follow them from point A to point B to point C and then we can commit to it.”
In a similar vein, Singh comments, “After a film is done, I throw out all the camera information from my head so on the next shoot I can start out fresh and test everything (for the next project). If you know what you’re doing with digital right now, nothing beats it.”
“It was really easy (to shoot) once we had everything down on paper,” says Singh. “I brought the family down (to New Orleans). The actors were great. It was a wonderful shoot. The assembly, the director’s cut, was 23 seconds longer than what ended up (in the film) so everything I wanted inside was in direct proportion to the film that I thought we wanted to make.”
“(Producer) Ram (Bergman) was wonderful. He had done a film there before, and his style and the way he produces and what I do is quite different so it was a steep learning curve but brilliant,” explains Singh. “I think he is really one of those people that has no ego, and he is surrounded by a great group of people. He shot Looper there the year before, so when we went into shoot, he was wonderful to have. For him, I was a completely different style of director to have. He told me the director’s cut for Looper was one hour longer (than the theatrically released cut), and they took about a year to cut it and bring it down. I said, ‘That’s not going to happen with the way I shoot,’ and he said, ‘Oh you don’t know. Directors always say that,’ and I said, ‘Okay, let’s give it a whack,’ and, as I said, my cut was off by 23 seconds. You know I just hate when you shoot incredible stuff, and it just doesn’t end up in the film.”
“What’s good is that we build up to the action,” adds Singh. “We don’t desensitize people with shootouts in the first act. The action here has a reason for being after the characters have been established.”
“The film turned out great,” continues Singh. “It’s such a good story. It has all the moral issues I wanted to address, and everything got addressed correctly, and that was it. It has to click. It either works, or it doesn’t, and it did. That was the greatest reward, the finished film.”
“The energy Tarsem brings to the set is palpable. He wields a little bit of magic, and you cannot exhaust this man. I would follow him anywhere,” concludes Reynolds.
Be sure to catch Ryan Reynolds, Sir Ben Kingsley and Matthew Goode in Tarsem Singh’s Self/less which released at theaters nationwide on July 10, 2015.
Want to learn more about Self/less? Check out Louisiana Film & Video’s production story on the film from Issue 6, 2013.